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Egypt’s el-Sisi’s Ecumenical Sunday: From Coptic Christmas to Mosque Dedication

January 9, 2019

Nativity of the Christ Cathedral (Photo: Mina Nader/The Media Line
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Ecumenical nationalism is the theme of the day of dedications of Church and Mosque built simultaneously

By Mina Nader and Jacob Wirtschafter/The Media Line

[New Administrative Capital, Egypt]–President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi brought his signature message of emphatic ecumenism to the celebration of Coptic Orthodox Christmas on Sunday marking the holiday with an appearance at the Nativity of the Christ Cathedral and the dedication of the massive Al-Fattah Al-Alim Mosque.

Authorities here say both structures now constitute the largest places of worship for Christian and Muslim worship in the Middle East region.

Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb, the sheikh of Al-Azhar who heads up the world’s foremost institute of Sunni Islamic learning –and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also participated in the consecutive consecrations that were televised to a nationwide audience just beginning to absorb the reality of the rising new city in the desert, 28 miles east of Cairo.

“This is a day of joy as we see our beloved country write a new page in the history of civilization,” Pope Tawadros II said. “We celebrate an unprecedented occasion where the minarets of Al-Fattah Al-Alim Mosque are embracing the lighthouses of the Nativity of the Christ Cathedral.”

(Mina Nader)

In Egypt, the stand alone spires adjacent to churches are called lighthouses- a reminder of the Christian Orthodox sect’s origins in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.

Thousands of church goers waving Egyptian flags greeted El-Sisi as he entered the cathedral with El-Tayeb and Abbas–both seen here as stalwart allies in this country’s battle against the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extreme jihadist groups Cairo officials say it has cultivated throughout the region.

“I want to say that this moment is very important in our history, because when I was at St Mark’s Cathedral a year ago, I told the pope that we would be celebrating the completion of the mosque and the cathedral, and here we are standing together with the promise fulfilled,” El-Sisi said. “This occasion is a message that we will not allow anybody to come between us, because Muslims and Christians in Egypt are one and will stay one.”

The reality of a continuing threat of terror was underscored earlier this week when on Saturday a police officer died while defusing an improvised explosive device found near a church in Nasser City, just north of central Cairo.

Tightened security at Egypt’s churches, forced the cell that intended to disrupt Christmas at the Church of the Virgin Mary and St Mercurius to plant the explosives on the domed roof of a next-door mosque.

Yet the threat of violence could not stem the excitement of George Al-Qumos Yassa, a 27-year-old seminarian who sang in the Christmas chorus.

“All year long we wait for this service when we stand and sing the holiday melodies, the Psalms of David and the Coptic songs,” Al-Qumos told The Media Line. “We seminarians left our families in Upper Egypt to participate in this historical moment.”

Coptic Church (Photo: Mina Nader and Jacob Wirtschafter/The Media Line)

The message of Ecumenical Nationalism was underscored by Sheikh El-Tayeb as he dedicated the new Al-Fattah Al-Alim Mosque – a two story structure which can accommodate more than 17,000 worshippers.

“This is a momentous occasion, as it is the first time in history that a mosque and a church are built and inaugurated at the same time,” El-Tayeb said. “This is the embodiment of the soul of brotherhood and love and Sharia law dictates that Christian and Jewish houses of worship must be safeguarded to the same extent that mosques are protected.”

American evangelical leaders who sit on U.S. President Donald Trump’s religious advisory council were also on hand for the celebration of Orthodox Coptic Christmas which is a national holiday in Egypt as well as the dedication of the New Capital Mosque.

The interfaith ceremonies even elicited a presidential tweet from Mr. Trump.

“Excited to see our friends in Egypt opening the biggest Cathedral in the Middle East. President El-Sisi is moving his country to a more inclusive future,” wrote the American president.

But Trump’s comments evoked some scorn from young Cairo Copts online who question the economic wisdom of Sisi’s US $45 billion new capital project and the depth of commitment to civic equality when many Coptic churches in the Nile Valley have yet to receive government building permits.

“While El-Sisi did a few good moves, for example, appointing the first Christian woman governor, real test of inclusivity will be whether Egyptian Christians can build churches where they actually live. This Cathedral is in the desert,” tweeted “The Big Pharaoh”- the online handle for a local Coptic commentator in his early thirties.

Still, the Egyptian establishment characterized the holiday festivities in the new city as a testament to national unity and economic recovery that contrasts with the sectarian destructiveness in other parts of the Middle East.

“Egypt is bigger and stronger than any terrorism or extremism that tries to touch the Christian presence,” Mohamed Osman El Khosht, President of Cairo University told The Media Line. “Christians are an authentic part of Egypt and its history.”

Photos by Mina Nader

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